Five Things Your Interpreter Wishes You Knew

Your interpreter wants a word with you!

Your interpreter would like a word with you.

Curious about what interpreters do?  Wondering how to best work with interpreters?  Here are some common misconceptions surrounding interpreters, and some helpful points to know about working with them!

Translators write and interpreters talk.  Although there are some professionals who do both interpreting and translating, the terms are not interchangeable.  If you’re speaking, you’re working with an interpreter.  Now you know.

An interpreter is not a walking dictionary.  I have over a decade of experience in healthcare and legal interpreting.  I have a graduate degree in interpreting.  I used to supervise an interpreter services department.  Still, there is always something I don’t understand or don’t know how to say, and that’s something I actually enjoy about this work.  In fact, part of an interpreter’s skill set is managing difficult speakers or difficult terminology.  Many professionals dedicate their entire training and practice to one specialty, while many interpreters work everywhere.  From medical specialty clinics to immigration offices to mental health consults, interpreters have to be prepared for everything, and we DO prepare, but expecting your interpreter to be a walking dictionary isn’t reasonable.  If your interpreter asks for clarification, it’s not a sign of an unprepared or incompetent interpreter.  It’s a sign that you’re working with a trained, competent interpreter.

We are there to facilitate communication.  What that means on the most basic level is that you say something in one language, and we say it in another.  If there’s something your interpreter doesn’t understand, or needs repeated, or needs extra explanation, she’ll let you know and then get on with the business of interpreting.  Otherwise, we’re not there to say comforting words to your patient, or explain legal procedures to your client.  YOU say the comforting words, YOU explain legal procedures, and your interpreter interprets.

Facilitating communication also means that we want the interaction between you and the other person to look and feel–as much as possible–like an interaction between people who speak the same language.  So speak directly to the person you’re speaking to, rather than telling your interpreter, “Ask him, tell him…”.  And expect your interpreter to speak to you as if she were the speaker, rather than saying, “He said, she said…”.

We are there to interpret everything.  Please don’t say something and then tell us, “Don’t interpret that.”  Imagine everyone in the room understands and speaks English, and speak accordingly.  Also: Some people who speak through interpreters actually understand some level of English, so they will understand what you’ve said even before you’ve asked the interpreter not to interpret it.

Many of us have specialized education, training, and have invested heavily in certification exams.  I didn’t spend a summer abroad in college and learn to speak another language and then become an interpreter.  Nobody did.  Yet it seems many people think all bilingual people can serve as interpreters.  There are just as many misconceptions about what it means to be bilingual and how another language is acquired.  A skilled interpreter is just like any other professional.  When you enjoy a smooth experience speaking and listening through an interpreter, that experience comes from years of study, training, exam prep, and on the job experience.

There is much more to be said in the way of language acquisition, how interpreters are trained, and the differences among healthcare, court and legal, and conference interpreting.  As an interpreter or someone who works with interpreters, what would you add to the list?

2 thoughts on “Five Things Your Interpreter Wishes You Knew

  1. Francesca Mentasti says:

    Very good article!! Interesting, easy to read, and eye opening for the interpreters’ clients! If we ask for a clarification, it means we are professionals and not incompetent. We’re there to do our best and to ease the communication…

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